As an academic publisher, I deal with all of our authors directly from the outset, often face to face (say, at a conference). There are no intermediaries (except for the occasional referral). As such, the world of literary agents and the mega-dollar book deals they are so often associated with are foreign territory for me.
Most scholarly books are aimed at a quite narrow academic market (though often with related professionals also in mind – journalists, policy makers, NGOs, businesses and the like). However, some scholars (but pitifully few) are interested in and capable of writing for, and reaching, a much broader audience (TV historians being a good example). Handled rightly, their books can sell in the tens of thousands, or more, instead in the low hundreds (as typical for many scholarly books).
If you have such a book in mind, there is probably little point in contacting me or indeed most academic publishers. You need to look elsewhere – and that is where literary agents are important.
Sure, there are exceptions (for instance, the massive bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty, was published in English by Harvard University Press). But in general such non-fiction bestsellers are not published by academic presses but by trade presses whose target audience is the general public rather than academics or professionals.
This is a glitzy, high-stakes world where the minimum acceptable print run may be 5,000 or 10,000 copies – a very different world from that of scholarly publishing. And in that world a vital role is performed by literary agents in finding and fostering new talent, in finding the right publisher, negotiating the best deal and (not least) supporting long-lasting and successful writing careers.
This is a dark art, little understood by outsiders.
Every so often I am asked by a writer about how to approach a literary agent. I shrug and point them in the direction of publications like the Literary Marketplace. Really, I have few clues if I am honest.
Today, I have learnt much more simply by reading a short post by Juliet Mushens in The Bookseller. Packed full of ideas and links to outside resources, it is an eye-opener.
I hope her business booms as a result.